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Getting to know SD-WAN

Published: 31 August 2016

Managing your wide area network (WAN) can be a full-time job in itself, so the recent development of software-defined WAN (SD-WAN) is music to many IT professionals’ ears. But what does it actually mean, and how can it help your business? Here’s an overview.

According to Gartner, SD-WANs are built from ‘a lightweight replacement for traditional WAN routers that are agnostic to WAN transport’ (i.e. support MPLS, internet, LTE). They offer a simple, highly efficient solution to the problem of complicated systems and the management associated with them – and they’re incredibly easy to configure, requiring a similar level of skill to that of setting up a home wireless network with consumer equipment.

The recent report by Gartner estimated that less than 1 per cent of the market is taken by SD-WAN at the moment, but with up to 30 per cent of users expected to be implementing the technology in their branches within the next few years, that figure is on the rise.

As a company that sits squarely between service providers and enterprise customers, helping them both communicate with each other, Highlight is in a great place to see the impact SD-WANs are making, how people are starting to roll them out, and the challenges they’re coming across.

Software siblings

Although SD-WAN is relatively new to most, you may be familiar with its older sibling, SDN – software defined networking. It’s obvious that they’re both related via their software definitions, but it’s worth separating the two out via their differences. SDN is intended for internal data centres, such as those in use at campuses or a company’s headquarters and Gartner’s analyst, Andrew Lerner, summed up their differences succinctly when he explained: “It (SDN) is an architecture, whereas SD-WAN is a technology you can buy”.

The good…

A recent survey by ESG highlighted the challenges driving IT professionals to SD-WAN-based connectivity solutions, finding that 21 per cent were looking for a system that addressed high availability, with another 21 per cent requiring agility and 32 per cent were keen to adopt a solution to address data security concerns.

Many companies have complex infrastructures in place within their operations – routers, WAN path controllers and optimisers, web gateways and firewalls to name just a few. These separate areas are expensive to set up and to maintain. They also cause problems in terms of the day-to-day management of networks. Managing a WAN centrally through software can help users identify issues and monitor their entire WAN in one interface, making it easier to handle and control.

That’s why SD-WAN’s low-cost, low-maintenance option is appealing to IT leaders, who are looking to cut costs by investing in the latest software. Much of the technology behind SD-WANs isn’t new, but it’s the packaging of these technologies that is making waves.

SD-WANs support multiple connection types and are able to do dynamic path selection, allowing for the load to be shared across WAN connections. They also provide users with a simple and effective interface for managing a WAN whilst supporting virtual private networks (VPNs). Removing the need for traditional branch routers, SD-WANs are sold as either software or a hardware/software combination.

The bad…

With so many great attributes, you must be wondering why the use of SD-WANs isn’t more widespread. There are many reasons – firstly, the routers already in place at many enterprises use custom-built ASICs (application-specific integrated circuits) to provide the WAN and LAN functionality, and these tend to have long refresh cycles. There’s also the ‘if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it’ mentality. Many network managers are happy with their current set up and are reluctant to enforce change if it means an element of the unknown – it’s expected that as and when such networks require an upgrade, there’ll be increased uptake of SD-WANs.

The power of knowledge

Regardless of the challenges it faces, there are some compelling benefits for those making the switch to SD-WAN. It’s no surprise that network decision makers are increasingly taking advantage of the cost savings, increased agility and simplification that SD-WANs provide. Ultimately, regardless of whether your system is hosted on-site or in the cloud, your application performance, and the overall success of your business, is reliant on your network. That’s why at Highlight we’re extending our high-value visibility to cover SD-WANs, giving you the confidence of knowing that everything is running smoothly in this new domain.

Being able to view your entire network system on one fully-integrated dashboard, complete with real-time status updates, will mean that you can monitor your infrastructure at a glance and ensure you are getting the best out of your SD-WAN investment.

Visibility of how technology is performing is our passion at Highlight. We’ll be blogging more on this channel about the challenges faced by Service Providers and Enterprises, as they look for confirmation that these new technologies are actually delivering on their promises.